Christmas always comes early for Roma supporters. Their messiah was born on 27 September, not in a Bethlehem stable but instead room 12 of the Fabia Mater clinic in Rome. Francesco Totti was sent to earth to distract them from their sins, and lead them into footballing glory.
As such, his birthday is a time of great celebration. This year many fans gathered outside Roma's training base in Trigoria to give thanks. A plane flew overhead trailing the message "History speaks for you". Inside, Totti was presented with a throne bearing his name and number, as well as a remarkable 37kg cake featuring a partial replica of the Colosseum.
At 37 years old, most players would have been plotting an imminent retirement; Totti instead toasted the two-year contract extension that he had signed a week previously. He might also have been reflecting on his role in a brand new footballing miracle: the resurrection of AS Roma.
The club had been pronounced dead just four months previously, by supporters of their city rivals Lazio. Celebrating a 1-0 victory over Roma in the final of the Coppa Italia, fans of the Biancocelesti put together a grand funeral procession– complete with hearse and wailing widow.
The stunt itself did not hurt Roma fans as much as the fear that their team was indeed fading. For the second year running, the Giallorossi had failed to qualify for Europe. A season that begun amid great optimism, with Zdenek Zeman's reappointment as manager prompting a boom in season ticket sales, had ended with their team 25 points adrift of champions Juventus.
Matters only got worse over the summer, as Roma sold off both of their two leading scorers from last season – Pablo Osvaldo and Erik Lamela – as well as the promising young centre-back Marquinhos, in a bid to balance the books. On top of all that, they appointed a manager, Rudi Garcia, who many of their fans had never heard of.
The Frenchman failed to endear himself to his new public, suggesting that a group of Ultras who turned up to jeer the team during a preseason training session must actually be Lazio supporters. A poll by Corriere dello Sport found that less than half of readers believed he was the man to turn things round.
Totti, though, was impressed. Zeman had never shielded his team from public criticism, instead encouraging it when he openly criticised Daniele De Rossi's attitude in training and accused other players of misinterpreting his tactical schemes. Garcia took the opposite approach, handing down stern admonishments behind closed doors but refusing to hear a bad word said by outsiders.
On the pitch, his team's performances left little room for criticism. By the time of Totti's birthday, Roma had already won all five games that they had played, including a victory over Lazio. Two days later they made it six out of six, crushing Bologna 5-0.
Already they were into uncharted territory. Never in the club's history had they won more than four consecutive games to start a season. But now the real challenge had arrived. Despite the victory over Lazio, there was still a perception that Roma had benefited from a relatively soft opening set of fixtures. Their seventh game would provide a real test, taking them to face Internzionale at San Siro.
The Nerazzurri had made an impressive start of their own, dropping just four points in six games under the new manager Walter Mazzarri. Even the champions, Juventus, had settled for a draw when they visited Inter a few weeks previously.
Garcia promised in the days leading up to the game that his team would seek nothing less than a win. Even he, though, cannot have envisaged quite what a win it would be.
Totti opened the scoring in the 18th minute, taking a pass from Gervinho on the edge of the D and crashing a first-time shot into the bottom corner. He added another goal in the 40th, blasting a penalty beyond Samir Handanovic.
The forward's most brilliant intervention, however, might be the one that he made another four minutes later, when he controlled a partial clearance on his chest and then the side of his boot, before swivelling away from Alvaro Pereira to release Kevin Strootman before the ball had even hit the ground . The Dutchman raced upfield before teeing up Alessandro Florenzi to score Roma's third and final goal.
The game finished 3-0 to the visitors. They had enjoyed some good fortune – Fredy Guarín hit a post for Inter when the score was still 1-0, while replays suggested that Gervinho had actually been just outside the area for the foul that led to Totti's penalty. But Roma were good value for their win. They had taken the game to their opponents without ever threatening to leave themselves exposed.
Totti was the consensus choice for man of the match, and indeed for Roma's man of the season so far. Playing as the central striker in Garcia's 4-3-3, he has seemed at times to be reprising the role that he played in Luciano Spalletti's 'strikerless' 4-6-0 – dropping deep and denying opponents their usual points of reference. He had only scored once before Sunday, but leads Serie A with six assists.
In recent games, though, Totti has also shared the stage with Gervinho – a player reborn following his summer switch from Arsenal. The Ivorian's speed and directness have been key assets for Roma, allowing them to switch rapidly from defence to attack. Before Saturday, he had also scored three goals in the last two games.
"Every day in Africa a gazelle wakes up and wishes it could be as fast as Gervinho," raved Sebastiano Vernazza in Sunday's Gazzetta Sportiva. Tonino Cagnucci took the hyperbole even further in the fan-produced publication Il Romanista, declaring that: "Now Africa has its Messi".
Several other new signings have also excelled. Kevin Strootman's power and drive in the middle of the park have overwhelmed opponents, while Mehdi Benatia has been unflappable in central defence.
The real star, though, has not been any of those players but rather Garcia himself. Through seven games, his team have scored 20 goals and conceded just one. Those numbers are remarkable enough before you consider the fact that Roma had one of the worst defensive records in the whole division last season, giving up 56 goals in 38 games.
Garcia's sister, Sandrine, told reporters in France last week that even at 10 years old Rudi would spend hours rearranging his Subbuteo teams into different formations to see which ones worked best. But if the manager's tactics are certainly functioning well, his most striking achievement has simply been to instil such confidence in his players so quickly.
Last year's Roma, after all, might have been capable of grabbing a three-goal lead away from home, but they could never have maintained it so serenely.
"What really matters is our heads," said Totti after the win. "With a clear head anything is possible." Corriere dello Sport's editor Paolo De Paola put it another way: "Roma have freed themselves from fears, nonsense and never-ending controversies," he wrote. "They stuck their inherited insecurities in the loft and became resolute."
So much are Roma's players in awe of their new manager, that they are even reported to have given his half-time team-talk on Saturday a round of applause. More importantly, they also took it to heart, heeding his warning not to leave room for complacency.
In fact, even those sceptical fans seem to have been won round. Roma returned to Fiumicino airport at around 2am on Sunday morning to find nearly 1,000 supporters waiting to greet them.
Garcia would prefer that they had not. He has repeatedly stressed the need for people not to get ahead of themselves, pointing out on Saturday that there were still 93 points left to play for. "It's better just to focus on our objective of getting back into Europe, rather than talking about the Scudetto and disappointing our supporters down the line," he said. "And please don't talk about a revolution. That's an important word in France."
Precise use of language is important to Garcia, who made a point of learning Italian as quickly as he could after taking the job. But no amount of word play can dissipate the excitement that his team is generating. Just seven teams in the history of Serie A have ever begun a season with seven consecutive wins, and only one of those (Inter in 1966-67) failed to win the scudetto.
Now the fans have a full two weeks to savour this result, and to look ahead to another key fixture against Napoli once the teams return from the international break. Roma has died and Roma is risen, but even Totti does not yet know quite what comes next.
Results and talking points
• That Roma-Napoli game, incidentally, has been moved forward to Friday 18 October at 7.45pm. It was originally scheduled for Saturday at 6pm, but local authorities vetoed that option due to a clash with a planned protest in Rome against a new high-speed rail network.
• Totti's impressive performances have, somewhat inevitably, sparked fresh calls for Cesare Prandelli to call the forward up to his Italy squad. The player himself sought to deflect such talk. "Forgive me if the national team are not on my mind right now," said Totti. "Right now I am thinking about my Roma."
• Sulley Muntari did what he could, scoring for Milan after 19 seconds, and then again after 90 minutes, against Juventus in Turin. It was not enough for his team to avoid a defeat, as Andrea Pirlo, Sebastian Giovinco and Giorgio Chiellini struck for the hosts inbetween times. Neither team was brilliant and despite the victory Antonio Conte must be alarmed by Juventus's new-found habit of always conceding the first goal. Milan are technically a point better off than they were at the same point last year, but that is hardly a statistic to be proud of. Before the end, Milan's fans had indulged in a sarcastic round of "We are staying up" chants.
• Juventus remain two points behind Roma, and so do Napoli after their 4-0 rout of Livorno. Such a result is expected against newly promoted opposition, but the Partenopei will have been encouraged nevertheless to achieve such a comfortable scoreline without the injured Gonzalo Higuaín.
• The absence of European competition might be Roma's greatest advantage this season. Both Lazio and Fiorentina looked spent from their respective Europa League commitments as they ground out a 0-0 draw on Sunday night.
• Gian Piero Gasperini's latest tenure as Genoa manager began with a 1-1 draw at Catania. The manager's 3-4-3 formation was instantly familiar, but the play less so. This team have shed a lot of quality since he was last here, and he was grateful a Nicola Legrottaglie own goal allowed them to grab a point on Sunday.
• Not a good day for the referee Andrea Gervasoni, who controversially denied Sampdoria a 2-0 lead at home to Torino when he blew his whistle for half-time just as Nicola Pozzi was prodding home a rebound from Angelo Palombo's free-kick. It was exactly the sort of tough break that Samp, struggling at the foot of the table with just two points before the weekend, could have done without. They eventually had to settle for a 2-2 draw, which they secured only through an Eder penalty in the third minute of injury time.
Results: Bologna 1-4 Verona, Catania 1-1 Genoa, Chievo 0-1 Atalanta, Inter 0-3 Roma, Juventus 3-2 Milan, Lazio 0-0 Fiorentina, Napoli 4-0 Livorno, Parma 3-1 Sassuolo, Sampdoria 2-2 Torino, Udinese 2-0 Cagliari.